The sun was shining. It was a clear day, the soft breeze brushing up against Serenity as she sat steady on the planet's surface, her docking bay doors thrown wide open to the spring air as they waited for the return of three of their crew.
River walked the length of the cargo bay, feeling the way her steps were different upon Serenity when she rested planetside, sure and solid, but without any give. Pausing behind Zoe and Inara, she listened as they seemed to speak quietly of grief and improbabilities and deeper mysteries without actually a word between them.
Nearer to the doors, River saw Kaylee, Sam, and Jayne sitting just outside the hold, sprawled in chairs as they soaked up the sun. Kaylee and Sam's fingers twisted in the light as they discussed plans and theories and just-maybe-possibles, Jayne's mouth wide open as he snoozed insensibly next to them.
Rising her hand against the blinding sun, River stared off to the next rise, feeling their approach before the first figure broke the horizon.
"They're coming," she said.
Sam pushed up out of her chair, Kaylee kicking Jayne into wakefulness.
"What?" Jayne demanded, his hands flying out on either side.
"Oh my," Inara said, laughter in her voice as they all caught a glimpse of their returning shipmates.
Mal and Jack were head to toe covered in thick mud, while Vala strolled just in front of them, spotless with a satchel across her chest and a lacy parasol twisting above her head like a duchess.
"Dare I ask how the job went, sir?" Zoe said while Kaylee and Sam fought off laughter.
Mal and Jack looked at each other and simultaneously said, "What job?" as if they had previously agreed never to speak of it ever again.
Vala snapped her parasol shut, spinning it between her fingers like a baton. "You almost had to see it to believe it."
"Vala," Mal said, warning clear in his voice.
Vala glanced at him, nodding. "You're right. This story is just too good to go for free." She turned back to their audience, parasol tip down in front of her. "Do I hear any bids?"
Jayne and Kaylee were already scrambling for things to offer up for payment, Sam goading them on.
Jack threw Sam a look that she seemed to have no problem interpreting. She took a step back, hands raised in front of her. "Jack O'Neill, don't you dare."
But Jack didn't seem to hear as he swept her up in a squelching hug, her feet actually lifting up off the ground for a moment. He rubbed his head against her cheek, leaving a long brown smudge on her pale skin.
"You are in so much trouble!" Sam said, voice rising near a shriek. River didn't need the waves underneath to see the joy in her, nestled just below her bluster.
Jack laughed, darting a quick glance to River. "Totally worth it," he said with a wink, almost like a secret between friends.
The strangers lingered until they weren't no more, and Serenity expanded and adjusted and found space for them. They filled a lot of the holes, even if the deeper cracks were still there—would always be there. But there were new sounds now, new waves rolling through the walls of Serenity.
Sam and Mal arguing, though mostly for sport now, as they each got an inordinate amount of amusement out of provoking the other. Vala saying everything but what she really meant, truth dolloped out like a tenuous trail of breadcrumbs, just waiting to see if anyone might ever pick up on it. Daniel did, but held it close to his chest, waiting to see where she landed.
And then there was Jack.
Jack was still a hum just quiet enough not to be heard, even by River. He was different than the others, something fundamental shifted in his base pairs. It had been a long time since River had to learn to know someone from the outside, from what they willingly gave and not what they hid. He scared her, at first, because maybe she couldn't dig out his dark spaces, but she still saw the anger, the danger—Simon caught by the throat. Only then she saw the way his eyes followed his friends, heard the way his voice softened when he caught her following him.
"Hey, kid. You must be really bored to find me so interesting."
She decided she liked the not knowing, having to guess what he might say or do, being wrong now and again. She hadn't been allowed to be wrong for so long.
Mal was the one to suggest she teach Jack to fly Serenity. "He's one hell of a pilot," Mal had said, waves of reluctant respect and nascent trust emanating off him.
When she was up on deck with Jack as her co-pilot, it was quiet. Nothing to obscure the sound of Serenity, the soft hum of things being right and steady and full. She thought Jack might just appreciate the silence too.
She couldn't be sure though.
She liked that.